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Virus courtesy of Centers for Disease Control; Teen photos courtesy of families

Coronavirus Diaries

Teenagers reflect on how their lives have been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic—and what they’re trying to learn from the crisis

For weeks now, Americans have been forced to adjust to a new normal, as the coronavirus officially known as Covid-19 has ravaged communities around the globe. With hospitals overrun with patients, many states have taken the drastic step of shutting down schools and all nonessential businesses, ordering people to stay indoors as much as possible to try to halt the spread of the virus. The effect on workers has been devastating: Millions have had to file for unemployment. For many teenagers, the stress of worrying about their health and their families’ well-being has been compounded by the challenge of finishing the school year online, cut off from all their classmates.

In these essays, five high school students discuss how their lives have dramatically changed during the Covid-19 pandemic and what it might mean for their futures.

For weeks now, the coronavirus officially known as Covid-19 has ravaged communities around the globe. It’s forced Americans to adjust to a new normal. Hospitals across the nation have been overrun with patients. As a result, many states have taken drastic steps to try to halt the spread of the virus. They’ve shut down schools and all nonessential businesses. They’ve also ordered people to stay indoors as much as possible. The effect on workers has been devastating. In fact, millions have had to file for unemployment. For many teenagers, this situation has been stressful. They’ve been worrying about their health and their families’ well-being. They’re also facing the challenge of finishing the school year online, cut off from their classmates. That’s made things more difficult for them.

The following essays were written by five high school students. In them, they discuss how their lives have dramatically changed during the Covid-19 pandemic. And each of them touches on what they’re experiencing might mean for their futures.

Hayley Bruner, 17

New York City • Senior at Millennium High School

I write from my seventh day of self-quarantine. For the first time in my life, New York looks dead. No cars, no honking, and no bustle. My phone lights up with a new headline about the pandemic every 20 minutes; the death toll outside my door rises.

My skin is cracking from my 17th hand sanitizer application. I haven’t seen my friends in a week unless it’s through a screen, and I’ve been wearing the same pajamas for longer than I’d like to admit. I don’t know the next time I’ll see my school again, but it will probably be my last.

The last months of my senior year are gone, robbed by coronavirus. I’ll be doing my schoolwork in the silence of my own home instead of being surrounded by voices I’ve known for almost four years. Before the virus, I remember begging for school to end. I didn’t care about a prom or senior activities—they seemed like trivial obligations. And I was so ready to leave the people of my high school.

I write from my seventh day of self-quarantine. For the first time in my life, New York looks dead. No cars, no honking, and no bustle. My phone lights up with a new headline about the pandemic every 20 minutes; the death toll outside my door rises.

My skin is cracking from my 17th hand sanitizer application. I haven’t seen my friends in a week unless it’s through a screen, and I’ve been wearing the same pajamas for longer than I’d like to admit. I don’t know the next time I’ll see my school again, but it will probably be my last.

The last months of my senior year are gone, robbed by coronavirus. I’ll be doing my schoolwork in the silence of my own home instead of being surrounded by voices I’ve known for almost four years. Before the virus, I remember begging for school to end. I didn’t care about a prom or senior activities—they seemed like trivial obligations. And I was so ready to leave the people of my high school.

My senior year has been robbed by coronavirus.

Now I don’t know whether I will get a yearbook or a graduation or a prom. I’m hoping—pathetically and fearfully hoping—that I will get to walk across a stage and receive my diploma. I hope that I can dance with my best friends as my teachers linger awkwardly near the food.

When you count on something so much, you don’t realize until it’s gone. The class of 2020 will have to go without a real senior year and all the closure that comes with it. Will I get to clean out my locker in June? Will I get to hug people goodbye? Will I get to feel it, that promised feeling, when you close your eyes and think, I’m really done here. The answer is probably not. But I think we’ll all look back on this with a sense of solidarity that we lived through these life-changing events together.

Now I don’t know whether I will get a yearbook or a graduation or a prom. I’m hoping—pathetically and fearfully hoping—that I will get to walk across a stage and receive my diploma. I hope that I can dance with my best friends as my teachers linger awkwardly near the food.

When you count on something so much, you don’t realize until it’s gone. The class of 2020 will have to go without a real senior year and all the closure that comes with it. Will I get to clean out my locker in June? Will I get to hug people goodbye? Will I get to feel it, that promised feeling, when you close your eyes and think, I’m really done here. The answer is probably not. But I think we’ll all look back on this with a sense of solidarity that we lived through these life-changing events together.

BBB/STAR MAX/IPx/AP Images

People wear hazmat suits while shopping for groceries in New York City

Meimei Xu, 18

Atlanta, Georgia • Senior at The Westminster Schools

Months before Covid-19 arrived in the U.S., it had already invaded my home in Atlanta.

My family immigrated to the U.S. from China when I was 3 years old, but we remain close to a large network of relatives there. Back in January, when the virus erupted in China, my parents scrambled to buy N95 protective masks and send them to our relatives. At the dinner table, in the car, while we were out shopping, my mom and dad rotated the same set of questions: Did they get the masks? Did the Chinese government confiscate them?

We worried about my uncle in Beijing, who had recently had surgery for a colon tumor and was susceptible to infection. Together, my family watched videos of the medical catastrophe unfolding in Wuhan: nurses howling from sleep deprivation and doctors overwhelmed by stress and insufficient materials. We grieved the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who had revealed the extent of the epidemic and been punished by the Chinese government, as if he had been a personal friend.

Months before Covid-19 arrived in the U.S., it had already invaded my home in Atlanta.

My family immigrated to the U.S. from China when I was 3 years old, but we remain close to a large network of relatives there. Back in January, when the virus erupted in China, my parents scrambled to buy N95 protective masks and send them to our relatives. At the dinner table, in the car, while we were out shopping, my mom and dad rotated the same set of questions: Did they get the masks? Did the Chinese government confiscate them?

We worried about my uncle in Beijing, who had recently had surgery for a colon tumor and was susceptible to infection. Together, my family watched videos of the medical catastrophe unfolding in Wuhan: nurses howling from sleep deprivation and doctors overwhelmed by stress and insufficient materials. We grieved the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who had revealed the extent of the epidemic and been punished by the Chinese government, as if he had been a personal friend.

My family already lived through this crisis with our relatives in China.

When the coronavirus epidemic finally exploded in the U.S., it felt as if my two worlds were colliding. Suddenly, being Chinese American has become a double-edged sword. To people passing me on the street in Atlanta, my Asian face makes me a source of suspicion. To my relatives in China, my American passport and my family’s criticism of China’s government makes us traitors.

In fact, both of these are wrong. But it is true that my Chinese identity gives me a special perspective on this crisis. After watching how the Chinese government tried to control information about the epidemic, I’m reassured by all the doctors and public health professionals speaking out so forcefully in the U.S. Even though the situation here looks alarming right now, I’m hopeful that that transparency will ultimately help us beat the virus and return to normal life. After all, knowledge is one of the most important tools in our arsenal.

When the coronavirus epidemic finally exploded in the U.S., it felt as if my two worlds were colliding. Suddenly, being Chinese American has become a double-edged sword. To people passing me on the street in Atlanta, my Asian face makes me a source of suspicion. To my relatives in China, my American passport and my family’s criticism of China’s government makes us traitors.

In fact, both of these are wrong. But it is true that my Chinese identity gives me a special perspective on this crisis. After watching how the Chinese government tried to control information about the epidemic, I’m reassured by all the doctors and public health professionals speaking out so forcefully in the U.S. Even though the situation here looks alarming right now, I’m hopeful that that transparency will ultimately help us beat the virus and return to normal life. After all, knowledge is one of the most important tools in our arsenal.

Jonathan Carroll-Madden, 17

Seattle, Washington • Senior at Ballard High School

The virus we had joked about has taken over our city—the same virus that we thought couldn’t affect us, much less derail the second semester of our senior year. Even when the first death was reported in the U.S., less than half an hour away, it didn’t feel real. Despite watching the crisis develop in Wuhan, China, and later in Italy, we were mostly blindsided and certainly weren’t expecting such an abrupt departure from normal life.

I’ve always been fortunate enough to live in a place where the grocery stores are stocked, where I’ve been able to go to school and to work, where I’ve had the luxury and freedom to go where I’d like. But suddenly these comforts are gone, and I’ve found myself isolated and alone, butting heads with my family as we tread on already heightened nerves.

The most recent victim of this calamity has been my ability to work. Last week, I received an all-staff email from the pool where I teach swim lessons, instructing us to file for unemployment, only to find out that I don’t qualify. The construction company my father and I work for also closed, leaving my father out of work. I’ve picked up more hours working as a mechanic at a bicycle shop to help out. But the effects of this pandemic are crushing hourly workers like myself; we are losing jobs, ordered to stay at home by our governor. At least I have a home to be confined to.

When school was first canceled, many of my peers were focused on what this would mean for graduation and our AP classes. Now we’re seeing the impact on our studies stretching far beyond that. How will this affect our first year of college in the fall? How can I afford college if my family and I can’t work? I was already looking at private loans. Will I be able to fund my aspirations of becoming a first-generation college student?

Even as the days become one, we have to keep on keeping on. Everyone must aid in mitigating the effects of this pandemic, because even if you aren’t at risk, you could end up taking away a hospital bed from someone who is. If we can all hunker down and do our best to not flood the health care system, this crisis will pass.

The virus we had joked about has taken over our city—the same virus that we thought couldn’t affect us, much less derail the second semester of our senior year. Even when the first death was reported in the U.S., less than half an hour away, it didn’t feel real. Despite watching the crisis develop in Wuhan, China, and later in Italy, we were mostly blindsided and certainly weren’t expecting such an abrupt departure from normal life.

I’ve always been fortunate enough to live in a place where the grocery stores are stocked, where I’ve been able to go to school and to work, where I’ve had the luxury and freedom to go where I’d like. But suddenly these comforts are gone, and I’ve found myself isolated and alone, butting heads with my family as we tread on already heightened nerves.

The most recent victim of this calamity has been my ability to work. Last week, I received an all-staff email from the pool where I teach swim lessons, instructing us to file for unemployment, only to find out that I don’t qualify. The construction company my father and I work for also closed, leaving my father out of work. I’ve picked up more hours working as a mechanic at a bicycle shop to help out. But the effects of this pandemic are crushing hourly workers like myself; we are losing jobs, ordered to stay at home by our governor. At least I have a home to be confined to.

When school was first canceled, many of my peers were focused on what this would mean for graduation and our AP classes. Now we’re seeing the impact on our studies stretching far beyond that. How will this affect our first year of college in the fall? How can I afford college if my family and I can’t work? I was already looking at private loans. Will I be able to fund my aspirations of becoming a first-generation college student?

Even as the days become one, we have to keep on keeping on. Everyone must aid in mitigating the effects of this pandemic, because even if you aren’t at risk, you could end up taking away a hospital bed from someone who is. If we can all hunker down and do our best to not flood the health care system, this crisis will pass.

Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Medical workers test a patient for the coronavirus at a drive-through testing lab in Florida.

Kaleb Autman, 18

Chicago, Illinois • Senior at George Westinghouse College Prep

I live on Chicago’s West Side, a tightly packed neighborhood of poor and working-class people. I’ve spent the past five years as a community organizer, trying to bring social justice to this part of the city. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m trying to figure out how to help those around me who need it most—the people you may not be hearing much about.

Across the street from where I live is a homeless shelter. It’s been there as long as I can remember, serving hundreds of families who are in crisis but yearning for stability. With the economic collapse we’ve seen in the past few weeks because of coronavirus, the shelter and its adjacent food pantry are busier than ever.

I’m worried for one of my neighbors, Eddie Dorsey, who lives in a broken-down car on a plot of land he uses as a community garden, growing corn, tomatoes, and watermelon. He doesn’t have running water, so he can’t even wash his hands. (He collects rain water in barrels for the garden.)

I live on Chicago’s West Side, a tightly packed neighborhood of poor and working-class people. I’ve spent the past five years as a community organizer, trying to bring social justice to this part of the city. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m trying to figure out how to help those around me who need it most—the people you may not be hearing much about.

Across the street from where I live is a homeless shelter. It’s been there as long as I can remember, serving hundreds of families who are in crisis but yearning for stability. With the economic collapse we’ve seen in the past few weeks because of coronavirus, the shelter and its adjacent food pantry are busier than ever.

I’m worried for one of my neighbors, Eddie Dorsey, who lives in a broken-down car on a plot of land he uses as a community garden, growing corn, tomatoes, and watermelon. He doesn’t have running water, so he can’t even wash his hands. (He collects rain water in barrels for the garden.)

I’m trying to figure out how to help those around me.

Because of my experience as a youth organizer, I worry particularly about the students in my neighborhood. Chicago has a long history of educational inequities, which disproportionately affect poor black and brown neighborhoods. This means that many of the kids who live on my block are part of the roughly 75 percent of Chicago public school students who didn’t meet Illinois’s proficiency standards in 2018. How will these students catch up when schools and libraries are closed? Many of them don’t have access to high-speed internet, so they won’t be able to keep up with school remotely the way students in wealthier areas can. What impact will that have on my community’s future?

I’m reminded of the privileges I have. I have internet, health care, food in my fridge, and a roof over my head. But many people don’t—in my neighborhood and around America. In these turbulent times, how do communities come together and support each other, including the most vulnerable among us, while maintaining safe social distance? We can start by listening to one another. Covid-19 may be the disease, but working together can be the vaccine.

Because of my experience as a youth organizer, I worry particularly about the students in my neighborhood. Chicago has a long history of educational inequities, which disproportionately affect poor black and brown neighborhoods. This means that many of the kids who live on my block are part of the roughly 75 percent of Chicago public school students who didn’t meet Illinois’s proficiency standards in 2018. How will these students catch up when schools and libraries are closed? Many of them don’t have access to high-speed internet, so they won’t be able to keep up with school remotely the way students in wealthier areas can. What impact will that have on my community’s future?

I’m reminded of the privileges I have. I have internet, health care, food in my fridge, and a roof over my head. But many people don’t—in my neighborhood and around America. In these turbulent times, how do communities come together and support each other, including the most vulnerable among us, while maintaining safe social distance? We can start by listening to one another. Covid-19 may be the disease, but working together can be the vaccine.

BBT University

Students of a university in Tokyo attend graduation from their homes using remote-controlled robots.

Delaney Nelson, 17

Nashua, New Hampshire • Junior at Nashua High School South

My mom is an emergency room nurse and my dad is a firefighter, so I’ve always had an awareness of the constant risk they face. When I hear about tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombing or a school shooting, I can’t help but think that my mom and dad would be the first ones out there helping people. Sometimes I think about the fact that my dad had been a New York City firefighter just a few months before 9/11. But picturing my parents on the front lines of situations such as these is usually paired with my assumption that these dangers “wouldn’t happen here.”

However, the coronavirus has burst that bubble. The pandemic has heightened the anxiety I’ve long felt about my parents’ jobs and made it much more tangible. Now my mom comes home daily with her hospital scrubs sealed in a plastic bag so as not to contaminate our house. She works long shifts wearing uncomfortable protective equipment the whole time. Fears of coronavirus race through her mind almost obsessively. Like most firefighters, my dad is also an E.M.T., so he goes on emergency calls and worries about being exposed to the virus in someone’s house where they don’t even know they might be infected.